Perched above the PCH in one of the most ideal locations in Huntington Beach for views of the Pacific Ocean and the pier, sits Spark Woodfire Grill. Since 2002, locals and tourists alike have visited Spark where Chef/Owner Tom Shields offers up some of the best contemporary American cuisine in Orange County.
Tom and his partner, Kathleen, who also happens to be his wife, run this 180-seat establishment together. Tom is a veteran chef with a lifelong career in the restaurant business. He is the creative force behind the menu at Spark and delivers his creations nightly at the dinner-only locale. Spark specializes in wood fire grilling and roasting of meat, chops, ribs, and seafood. The restaurant is one of three Southern California locations. The first outpost opened in Studio City in 1999, followed by the Huntington Beach location in 2002, and then in 2004, the third location opened in Beverly Hills.
The atmosphere inside Spark gives off an upscale beachside vibe, and this is reflected in the restaurant’s decor. The color palette is on the neutral side with accenting hues that are reminiscent of a California sunset. To capitalize on the restaurant’s greatest structural feature, half of the seating is located outdoors on a large terrace. The space is amply heated with overhead lamps as well as a large open fire pit. After dark, the fire pit creates a very inviting feel to the space. For the indoor seating, it is a slightly more formal, but very comfortable atmosphere. In the far end of the dining room there is a private space which is available for special events. This area also houses a large portion of Spark’s wine collection, making this room particularly well suited for oenophiles. The ambience at Spark is suitable for many different types of occasions, including a casual dinner, an elaborate party, a business meeting, or dining with or without a date.
Directly off the restaurant’s main entrance is a very cozy bar. Its beautiful design elegantly displays the well-stocked wine and spirits. It is an ideal spot for some quiet conversation. Guests can also peruse the extensive wine list and drink menu, which are as noteworthy and impressive as the food.
The California-driven wine list offers over 20 wines by the glass with a nice offering of varietals that complement an array of different foods. Tom provides a supplement to the list which includes suggested wine pairings for different food categories such as, “crab and lobster,” “grilled fish and chicken,” “broiled steaks and chops,” and “grilled meats.” This is particularly helpful in navigating the expansive menus. The selection of bottles ranges in price from $28 to upwards of $300, with the majority of the options in the more affordable range.
Spark also has a martini list with over 50 specialty options, including the signature Spark flower martini, which is a blend of “strasberi” vodka, Cointreau, and champagne. The drink is perfectly blended and chilled, then garnished beautifully with a single delicate flower floating on top. Clearly, the bartender likes to have some fun with the diverse martini menu, and for the summer Spark is offering a “spa treatment” martini. The cocktail is a blend of fresh juice from muddled watermelon mixed with cucumber vodka. These two unlikely flavors work together perfectly. Additionally, the drink menu lists six draft beers and 12 bottled, as well as a substantial offering of cognac, scotch, port, and grappa.
Service at the restaurant is friendly and courteous. Many of the servers and other staff members have been working at Spark since its opening. Our server, Gina, is one of them. She knows the menu inside and out and can recommend the perfect wine or cocktail to suit your mood. With her recommendation, I started with the Sonoma-Cutrer chardonnay. It is a crisp wine with distinct notes of lemon citrus with mineral undertones.
With wine in hand, the appetizers were delivered to the table with aplomb. First up was the Wood Grilled Artichoke with lemon garlic aioli. The smoked flavor in the artichoke was intensely flavorful and the artichoke’s leaves were tender and juicy. The aioli had the perfect amount of citrus to balance the smoke flavors. This sizable appetizer would be great for sharing. Two large artichokes were halved, then grilled and served hot with plenty of aioli on the side. The citrus-y chardonnay happened to be perfect with this dish. Tom says this appetizer is a perennial favorite among his guests, and I now know why.
The next appetizer we tried was the “Spark Roll”, which I ordered based on Tom’s suggestion. It was a California roll made with king crab that is topped with sautéed shrimp and mushrooms. The fresh taste of the crab and shrimp in this dish made the appetizer stand out. The roll was prepared inside out so the delicate rice is on the outside, with the cucumber, avocado and king crab on the inside. A sizable portion of perfectly seasoned shrimp and mushrooms lay on top. The balance of hot and cold temperatures made this roll fun to eat.
For entrees, we ordered the signature Roasted Rack of Lamb as well as the Herb Crusted Halibut. The halibut was prepared with an herb crust and served with a garlic butter sauce, vegetables, and rice pilaf. Its crust was made of panko, which is a flaky, Japanese-style bread crumb. The panko was blended with butter, seasonings, and fresh herbs and generously piled onto the halibut. This crust protects the fish from drying out while cooking, so it is served at it most succulent. Its light, crispy texture was a good counterpoint to delicate fish. The rich butter sauce also added great balance to herb flavors. Overall, this was a satisfying dish.
Our second entree, Roasted Rack of New Zealand Lamb, is Spark’s signature. It was served with a minted merlot demi-glaze, mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables. This dish was prepared medium rare and “double cut” for a dramatic presentation. In preparing this dish, first, the rack was “frenched,” or cut in a special way to remove the fat from the end of the bones. Then, after it was broiled, the rack was cut in half so it could be presented crosswise on top of the sauce. The demi-glace, which is a classic French sauce that is often used as the base for other sauces, was in this case made with merlot wine. The wine was reduced by half with veal stock to create the rich sauce. The Provenance Merlot that I ordered had just the right amount of fruit to complement the wine in the sauce. A toasted walnut and mint pesto was also drizzled onto the plate for an added dimension of flavor and color. The traditional sides of mashed potatoes and vegetables were aptly prepared.
Since Tom’s menu is totally his creation, including all the desserts, we ordered two just so we could get a good sampling. Not that we thought we were capable of finishing them! My curiosity for Tom’s pastry chops was piqued, so we ordered a classic Crème Brulee. I must say, it was as creamy and smooth as you could imagine and it was perfectly caramelized. We also tried the Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding, which is served with raspberries, walnuts and vanilla ice cream. The bread pudding itself was heated to perfection, and other components of the dish added the perfect amount crunch, tartness and creaminess. This dessert does more than just satisfy a sweet tooth – it is for real dessert junkies. It was truly a delightful way to end the meal.
From start to finish, Spark was an engaging, fun, relaxed, and delicious experience. The skillfully prepared American comfort food, the wine list, and of course the tremendous setting in which to enjoy it all in, are what give Spark its staying power in the ever-changing Orange County restaurant scene. To me, Spark represents the best of what Southern California style dining is all about.